SEATTLE - The health of Southern Resident Orca J50 has reached such critical status, officials with NOAA and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are planning to pull her from the wild if she is clearly separated from her family. The experts working to save her gave an update Wednesday morning, stressing they will only pull her if she’s abandoned. They stressed the objective is to restore her health and release her back into the J Pod.
“It was striking to me how thin she was,” said veternarian Joe Gaydos, who was the last to see her up close on Sept. 7. “She was thin when I saw her two weeks before, and I was surprised how thin she'd become. Thinnest killer whale that I'd ever seen. Still, at that same time she was still keeping up with her brother; her mother was in the area.”
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The teams with NOAA and Canada first plan to try to administer dewormer using a dart, similar to how they gave her antibiotics. They are in agreement about the drastic measure to pull J50 from the wild as a last resort.
“We don't intend to intervene while she is with her family,” Jim Milbury, with NOAA, said. “If we're presented with a situation in which a rescue is the only alternative, we will rescue her with the intent of providing short-term medical care to be able to release her to the wild.”
KIRO 7 was there in 2002 for Springer 73, the last killer whale successfully pulled from the wild and released. Springer is now thriving. If J50 is rescued in a similar manner, she'd be taken to the Manchester Research Station, in Port Orchard.
The plan is to put an endoscopic tube down J50's throat to view her stomach and to do blood work. There's no timeline for the rescue, and researchers emphasize their goal is for what happened with Springer: a healthy whale back in the wild.
“Remaining in captivity permanently does not meet our objective,” Milbury said. “And is an outcome that we very much intend to avoid.”
J50 is one of just 75 of the fish-eating orcas in Pacific Northwest waters. Another orca in the same pod, known as J35, triggered international sympathy this summer when she kept the body of her dead calf afloat in waters for more than two weeks.
The southern resident killer whales don't have enough chinook salmon, the staple of their diet. They also face threats from toxic contamination as well as vessel noise and disturbances that disrupt their ability to communicate and forage.
There hasn't been a successful birth in the population since 2015. Losing J50 would also mean losing her reproductive potential, biologists say.
Drone images taken Monday showed J50 much thinner than she was last year. Her mother, J16, has also declined in the past month, perhaps because of the burden of helping catch and share food with J50, experts said.
"Things are bad with her right now," Gaydos said. "She's one tough little cookie. It's amazing that she's still going."
As part of the response team, he tried unsuccessfully Friday to give the orca a dewormer by dart. He said experts met Monday to discuss a range of scenarios, including the pros and cons of capturing a free-swimming whale and when to intervene.
"We don't want to take her from her mom where we have a J35 situation. We don't want to have an impact on J pod," Gaydos said, but waiting until she strands may also be too late. "These are very hard questions to answer and I think that right now the good thing is we're talking about all the options."
NOAA Fisheries announced two meetings in Washington state this weekend - in Friday Harbor and Seattle - to get public input on next steps.
What to do to help J50 has generated intense emotional reactions on social media and other forums. Some have pleaded with federal officials to do everything they can to save her, including feeding her or capturing her. Others worry that more intervention would stress her and her family members. They think that nature should be allowed to run its course.
"We would love J50 to survive," said Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network, an advocacy group. "At what point are we doing more harm than good?"
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